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Hiran Abeysekera

Q&A with Hiran Abeysekera who plays Peter Pan in the forthcoming production at Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Meet Hiran Abeysekera, 29 years old from Sri Lanka. Hiran takes to the skies as Peter Pan at Regents Park Open Air Theatre from 15 May 2015 – 14 June 2015.

When did you first discover your love of theatre?
It was sort of a detention programme. I remember the first play I did, I was in class and I had done something naughty so the teacher got me on the desk so that all the other teachers passing our classroom could see me standing and that was like, ‘this is the naughty boy, watch out for him’. There was a new teacher who came and she was looking for people to use in her play – she wanted to bring theatre to this all-boys school. So she came into the class and asked my teacher ‘who has got a lot of energy?’  And she was like ‘oh you want somebody to dance?’, ‘he dances all the time, get that boy there!’ Then I was a rat in Pied Piper, that was my first role. Then she did Emperor’s New Clothes where I was a little girl. And then we got into Shakespeare – I played Lady Macbeth because I look like a girl when I’m dressed up. From there I joined a children’s theatre company in Sri Lanka called Lanka Children’s and Youth Theatre Foundation/Play House-Kotte.

In 2007, a director called William Scott Richards came to Sri Lanka and, with the British Council, he was going to do Romeo and Juliet as a tri-lingual version of the play – so Sinhala, Tamil and English. It was a time when the war was still going on, so it was very apt for then. I was cast in it, and I ended up playing Romeo. It was William who asked me if I would like to go to drama school, and I said yes.

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Hiran Abeysekera in rehearsal

William and the British Council paid for the plane ticket. Play House-Kotte along with friends and family collected some pocket money for the trip, and I came to England for the first time. William and Chris, his partner, took me to Bristol. Bristol Old Vic was the first audition I had, and I got in! That was a great start, and then things just fell into place after that. I auditioned for LAMDA , Guildhall and RADA, but the big question was money, whether I can afford to go to drama school because I don’t come from a very wealthy background. I got into all four of them. Guildhall and RADA offered me a scholarship, although RADA offered me a bigger one. I didn’t know anything about drama school, so none of this was a big thing! I was just having the time of my life! William said I should go to RADA, so I ended up going there.

What are you most looking forward to about Peter Pan?
I’m looking forward to the flying, to getting comfortable with it so I don’t have to think about it or worry about it. Looking forward to seeing the whole thing put together, because it’s an amazing team. It’s a huge cast, with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and phenomenal skill. I’m looking forward to the whole journey and to getting to the final product. Every day we’re getting closer and closer, building steps up towards it.
The flying rig looks pretty epic. How are you finding flying in the open air?
When you’re flying high up there, it’s the most amazing feeling, it’s so good. But you are constantly reminded that you’re not a bird, you’re just a human cos it hurts! It’s so technical, the whole show, even 5 minutes of flying is over two hours of rehearsal getting all of the safety things out of the way. It’s so precise, my life is totally in the hands of the counter weight, and they’re all solid – they’re brilliant guys! They have to know what the rhythm of the scene is, what the rhythm of my character is, I have to feel them as well. It’s not me flying, it’s them flying me and we have to understand each other’s bodies and rhythms to make it work. It’s quite minutely specific. But it’s really thrilling. You feel like a superhero for a bit, a little jump can take you 30 feet up in the air! We’ve been really lucky up until now, we’ve had amazing weather.

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Hiran Abeysekera in rehearsal

Tell us something about the world that Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel are creating for this production.
We are setting it during WW1. Wendy and Tinker Bell are nurses in a hospital, and the Lost Boys are soldiers. It starts with Wendy reading them the story of Peter Pan, and then Peter Pan comes through that as a Never Land in Wendy’s Head where soldiers can get away from their reality and escape. So when Peter Pan says ‘I always want to be a little boy and to have fun’, he can’t put it into words, but what he means is that he doesn’t want to go to war. Growing up means going to war, dying or losing limbs. There is a scene where Wendy gets all of the lost boys to go with her, and the boys come in wearing military rucksacks – but they don’t know anything about war, they think they are going on a big adventure. That’s how it was sold back in the day; go to foreign lands, defend your country…but the boys didn’t really understand the reality of what that meant. Peter sees what is going to happen but he doesn’t know how to explain it.
What did you know of Peter Pan before you started this process and what have you discovered since starting rehearsals?
I think like everyone I knew about Peter Pan, but not from the movie, and I don’t think I saw the animation. I know it through Disney merchandise. The story I remember, my mother used to tell me it when she was feeding me when I was a kid. She was studying for her BA degree in Greek and Roman Civilisations, so most of the stories were myths or Buddhist Jakarta stories, or stories like Peter Pan. So I remember my mother telling me the story of Peter Pan, but I never remember her ending it with them coming back to the
real world. I think in her story, Wendy and the Lost Boys all stayed in Never Land. When I read this, I thought, this doesn’t sound right – he’s got it wrong!
I’ve now discovered the real story that JM Barrie wrote. I’ve also discovered the history of why he wrote this, and how he wrote this; about the Llewelyn Davies boys, and his connection with them. Just thinking about what JM Barrie was trying to say – I suppose it was his therapy, writing this book, because Peter Pan is messed up if you think about it. We all know him as a boy who doesn’t want to grow up, but in the stage directions it suggests that that’s his biggest pretence. He’s pretending that he doesn’t want to grow up. So does he understand? Or is he growing up, and the only way to stop it is to pretend that he’s not? It’s something I had never thought of before I started digging into it.

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Hiran Abeysekera & Kae Alexander in rehearsal

So why should people come to see Peter Pan?
It’s going to be magical and it’s going to be a spectacle I think. And it comes back to the flying, usually there are two wires going up, but we are on a bungee, so it’s quite circus-like. I think it’s going to be pretty cool…
I think if I was a kid, and my parents said there’s this show, I would definitely enjoy it. As an adult, I would enjoy it more. As kids we tend to enjoy the novelty – most things are a novelty: if they haven’t seen flying, of heard of Peter Pan, or seen it on stage, it’s a novelty. Whereas, as an adult, we know the story. To re-live it as an adult reminds us of our childhood, and that’s something which it is important not to forget.

Peter Pan plays Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 15 May 2015 until 14 June 2015.

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Book tickets to Peter Pan